“Why not?” It’s a question the designer Anna Karlin asks several times on a phone call from her Chinatown studio. And it’s a question she’s asked herself more than once over the course of her remarkably accomplished career, which has seen her leave major jobs at design firms to strike out on her own; leave London for New York; and leave the corporate world for her own atelier, launching a collection that appears to comprise every beautiful object she could conceive of. For the One Manhattan Square development on NYC’s Lower East Side, Karlin went beyond developing mere model homes for the 10 spaces she was given and built entire worlds around their potential residents, complete with character studies and contexts. And with results as beguiling as her Shaker-meets-Memphis furniture and lighting, why not indeed? Here, Karlin sits down with Interior Design to discuss her roots, her fearlessness, and what’s on the boards for her namesake studio.
Interior Design: What’s your first memory of a well-designed space?
Anna Karlin: My grandmother’s house, which my grandfather built. It was an Arts and Crafts house, with all the considered paneling and banisters, but my granny had a totally different kind of taste, slightly more Louis XV and Victorian. While I grew up in London, my gran’s house was in the country and I remember being very conscious of the objects and space in it, of all the decisions that had been made.
ID: And that prompted your interest in set and interior design?
AK: I went to art school and did every internship I could find. I thought I would get into set design, but realized I didn’t want just to make things look like other things. I didn’t want to replicate. I started doing art direction, windows, fashion shows and shoots, branding, a lot of special projects. I did all these mad things, and got to flex.
ID: This was in London... and then you moved to New York?
AK: I left London nine years ago. I wanted an adventure. I liked the contrast with London, the pace—noisier, busier, faster—all that stuff. I moved to Chinatown. It’s always been my neighborhood.
ID: You built your new studio in a space damaged by fire. What was your idea for it?
AK: I designed it so everyone would feel like they’re working around a kitchen table. All our desks are basically giant dining tables. My personal table is covered with experiments, bibs and bobs. It’s a discovery table. Everyone else’s is very organized!
ID: That’s the privilege of being the boss, right?
AK: Hell yes! (Laughs.) It drives them absolutely crazy. I’m limited to my space. They keep me in my area!
ID: What inspired you to launch your first collection in 2012.
AK: I’m totally self-taught, but I just knew that I had to make work that was permanent and designed from within rather than to a brief. Look inwards rather than outwards. So I decided just to do everything—furniture, lighting, glassware, ceramics, the whole lot.
ID: Why did you decide to begin with a full line, instead of just a few pieces?
AK: It didn’t occur to me not to! If I knew what I know now I might have only launched a single glass or something! But I learned very quickly. I didn’t have the money for mold costs, for example, so I did one-offs, and figured if you can’t sell one piece, that’s the damage done. That’s the most you could screw it up.
ID: So learning as you work—what have been some big lessons?
AK: It all comes back to the fundamentals of being human. We all need to grasp and find some sort of connection to the handmade, to nature, and you start there. But then there’s the beauty and precision of the machine. Exploring the tension between the two is very human and natural. It’s something that really works for me, aesthetically. You take material and form and hit people with another language—and that’s what becomes interesting. These objects take on an identity and reason for being in a space. And then the materials choose themselves. I start with a form, messing around with something, and it evolves and you just know what the materials need to be. Wherever the piece wants to go, you match it up with its correct partner.
ID: Are there materials you haven’t worked with yet that you’ve got your eye on?
AK: I’ve worked with pretty much everything going! But I’d really like to do more cast things, large-scale ceramic furniture like the terra cotta stools. These natural materials, you just dig them out of the ground and then you mold them and manipulate them by hand. That’s something I want to zone in on. And I’ve begun fine jewelry, which just seemed like a natural extension. Why not? I want to wear it so I’ll have to make it, and off it goes into the world. There’s a lot more where that came from. It all relates to the idea of sculpture—furniture is domestic sculpture; jewelry is wearable sculpture.
ID: You’ve also moved into model residence design. What was the inspiration for the 10 units in One Manhattan Square?
I’m super familiar with the area—it’s a 10-minute walk from my studio. The building is its own ecosystem. A city has all these different characters, so we developed 10 different characters that could be part of the ecosystem, each with his or her own aesthetic, personality, life. We started from a character development point of view rather than a design point of view, because otherwise, in a building that big, how do you feel connected to it? We wanted characters you can relate to, you can say, “I’m the Young Entrepreneur” or “I’m the Minimalist” or “I’m the Glamorous Couple.” I suppose I’m pretty close to the Young Family. Just the pure aesthetic is aspirational—I definitely fall for that!
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